Journey to the Unknown (1968) – Part Three: Horror Writers, Television and Alternative Definitions of Genre

The presence of Harrison also demonstrates something else. The stories are not, like most Hammer films, references back to the classic Gothics stories of literature or to the Universal horror pictures. There is no Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolf or Mummy here. Instead, the stories are based on writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Donald Westlake. Robert Bloch also appears as a screenwriter, even if he is adapting other people’s rather than contributing stories of his own. In this way, the series relates to a version of horror that is often forgotten and includes both the nightmarish thrillers of Woolrich and the stories of Matheson and Beaumont, a version of horror that had been central to television horror until at the least the late 1960s and is probably exemplified by Joan Harrison’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Although often remembered today as a writer of crime thrillers, Woolrich was very much talked about as a horror writer in the 1940s, and he had written several scripts for silent horror films during his time in Hollywood. He is also remembered for his nightmarish tales of psychological breakdown. In fact, many of his protagonists are psychological victims who have lost their memory and find themselves in terrifying worlds that they cannot comprehend.

This is also the central premise of his story for Journey to the Unknown, except that in this case, the protagonist (Stephanie Powers) is not the victim of a knock on the head but a suicide, whose dead body is brought back to life by a scientist. However, although alive, the poor girl has lost her memory, and her previous life is a mystery to her. In many senses, then, it looks like a familiar Woolrich story except that its protagonist is one of the living dead.

Similarly, Matheson, Beaumont and Bloch had all written horror, science fiction and noirish thrillers, which they did not see these as separate categories. Elements that we might associate with one term or another were often blended within their stories, and they even described their stories in ways that we might find surprising today. In his autobiography, for example, Robert Bloch describes his time as part of the Lovecraft circle of writers, when he was writing in the style of Lovecraft; but he does not refer to this writing as horror (with which these kinds of stories are commonly associated today) but as science fiction. Given these stories are concerned with alien monsters that are trying to invade the world, one can see how he could have understood the type of fiction associated with Weird Tales as SF rather than horror.

Westlake is also interesting in this context. Although probably best known for his comic caper thrillers, often featuring the wonderful Dortmunder (God, I love these novels – if you haven’t read a Dortmunder novel, you are really missing something), he has also written a variety of other stuff. In the mid-1980s, he wrote the screenplay for a fantastic slasher film, The Stepfather, which is an absolute classic. He also wrote the famous Parker novels, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. These are tough, vicious thrillers that were most brilliantly adapted for the screen with Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman. I also recently read Memory, a posthumously published thriller that he wrote back in the 1960s, which is a really wonderful Woolrich-style horror-thriller that is absolutely brilliant. And heartrending.

Anyhow, Journey to the Unknown demonstrates the continuing survival of a 1940s version of horror, just around the time when the first studies of the horror film were coming out and were largely marginalizing or excluding this tradition from what would become the canonical definitions of horror throughout most of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

To be continued: next week – Journey to the Unknown – Part Four: When it Works

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Satan’s School for Girls

Okay, so I just watched Satan’s School for Girls again, and what can I say. Its a knowing camp-fest that is produced by Aaron Spelling, who has done other horror productions: anyone remember Kindred: the Embraced in the mid 1990s? On the one hand, its really silly: the devil is on the loose in a girl’s school – the clue is in the title. On the other, its not quite silly enough – there is is a serious absence of the more obvious pleasures of this kind of nonsense. On yet another hand – okay, we are talking mutants with numerous hands here – its full of rather batty pleasures. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd appear in pre-Charlie’s Angels roles, and while Cheryl is a major disappointment, Kate is perfect – but then she was always my favorite angel, so maybe I am just biased.

More importantly, it has various other iconic figures in various roles. The lead is the ever wonderful and perennially weird Pamela Franklin, who was wonderful as one of the children in The Innocents (1963), and was weird and creepy in various roles including non-horrors like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and horror-numbers such as The Nanny (with mad, bad Betty Davis), Our Mother’s House, And Soon the Darkness, and Necromancy (with madder, badder Orson Welles). However, its her role in the fantastic The Haunting of Hell House that will always stay with me – she is both creepy and sympathetic – and of course we are back in Richard Matheson territory. I am beginning to worry that this is turning into a Richard Matheson appreciation blog, not that this would be a bad thing.

Along with Franklin, there is also Roy Thinnes as a charismatic teacher who is trying to open up the kids’ minds (it is the early 1970s, when teachers still had notions about such things), but I think I will spare you much more about Thinnes for now, an actor who seems to be turning up in these posts with nearly as much regularity as Matheson. Finally, there is also Lloyd Bochner, or Cecil Colby from Dynasty, an actor with a voice that always reminds me of Orson Welles (see earlier posts) and has a long and distinguished career in horror. To be honest, his CV would make a a truly impressive list, and one would be hard pushed to find an example of a classic American television series that he hadn’t been in – Love Boat, Fantasy Island, you name it. None the less, he would also memorably appear in various examples of horror, such as Bloch’s The Night Walker, Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, a role which has become one his most fondly remembered – he even spoofed it in one of the Naked Gun films…

I am not sure that I am actually recommending Satan’s School for Girls. Its not The Night Stalker.¬†Its not even Curse of the Black Widow. And it probably is representative of what Gregory Waller hates about the made-for-television film (although it still doesn’t fit many his actual claims about it). But it is also filled with hokey pleasures – and clearly borrows heavily from the female Gothic (borrowing here being tantamount to travesty), with its female investigator who solves the mystery, and its rather banal excuse for a climax in which the contemporary characters all investigate the mystery while holding oil lamps like something from a nineteenth century melodrama – hey, there’s been a power cut!